Zimbabwean soldiers were 'forced to rig Mugabe poll'

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Two former Zimbabwean army officers said yesterday that they helped to rig President Robert Mugabe's re-election last year by stuffing ballot boxes with thousands of false postal votes.

They said that they were forced to fake thousands of ballots in the names of soldiers serving in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), as well as for many fictitious voters.

Herbert Ndlovu, 43, and Primrose Tshuma, 42, made the claims at a press conference in Johannesburg.

The officers fled to South Africa after being tortured and beaten in army barracks. They said that they had been accused of switching allegiances to the opposition party in Zimbabwe, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC).

The officers said that they decided to talk of their experiences to alert the world to the way the Zimbabwean regime was abusing state security to maintain power. They said morale had collapsed in the army, though they did not believe a military coup was possible. They produced army identity documents and medical records, which they said showed they had been tortured. According to the officers, soldiers stuffed the ballot boxes with the falsified postal votes well before the presidential election in March 2002.

Mr Ndlovu said that he was summoned to the headquarters of the Zimbabwe National Army's 4th Brigade in Masvingo in April 2002 and instructed by superiors to "work" on postal votes.

When he arrived soldiers were already filling in ballot papers in support of Mr Mugabe. "I was ordered to do the same , placing the X next to President Mugabe's name," he said.

"I filled in hundreds of ballot papers. There were too many to count, maybe thousands." He said that he had worked with five others, who were also filling in ballot papers. He said the ballots were later put in boxes and transported to the capital, Harare.

The two former officers said that they had filled in postal votes in Mr Mugabe's favour on behalf of many Zimbabwean soldiers serving in the DRC - as well as filling in many more ballots on behalf of fictitious voters. While the soldiers said that they did not know what happened at other army barracks around the country, their story corroborates allegations of ballot stuffing, which have been published in independent newspapers in Zimbabwe.

The reports suggested that the army had filled ballot boxes with about 500,000 ballot papers to help Mr Mugabe to win re-election with a majority of about 400,000 votes over Morgan Tsvangirai, the leader of the MDC.

The MDC has argued that the lack of a proper electoral roll and the absence of official election observers last year left ample scope for vote rigging. The High Court has not yet passed judgment on Mr Tsvangirai's application challenging the results of the presidential election on the basis that it was rigged.

The former officers said that they had fallen foul of their superiors, who accused them of being loyal to the MDC. They said that they had been tortured by "our own comrades with whom we fought shoulder to shoulder" in Zimbabwe's war of liberation, which began in the 1960s and finished in 1980.

At times, they said, they were tortured with electric shocks, detained in disused lavatories and forced to eat their own vomit. They said that every time they cried in pain or shouted for help, mops soaked in urine from a dirty toilet were forced into their mouths to keep them quiet.

Asked why they had obeyed illegal orders to rig the elections, Ms Tshuma said: "In Zimbabwe, the terms for a soldier are strict. You have to obey orders."

The consequences of not obeying orders were too drastic to contemplate, they told the press conference.